The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How an outdoorsy engineer is working to cut transportation pollution around disadvantaged communities

With transportation the top source of U.S. emissions, Harold Rickenbacker has worked on local air monitoring and teamed with Ikea on electric truck deliveries

Harold Rickenbacker, a clean air and innovation manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. (Courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund)
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Harold Rickenbacker has always been outdoorsy. He grew up in Orangeburg, S.C., in a rural setting that he said locked in his love for fishing, hiking and biking. He was also exposed to the difficult lives of nearby factory and port workers. Both prepared him for a life focused on the environment.

As a clean air and innovation manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, Rickenbacker works with companies and communities to monitor and reduce pollution from transportation, which contributes to climate change and harms health, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

While working on his engineering doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh several years ago, he worked with families hurt by the city’s air pollution, both outdoors and seeping into their homes. “My will to succeed when I wake up in the morning is impacted by … the air that I’m breathing,” said Rickenbacker, who has taken up these issues in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and other states.

He’s been living in South Carolina during the pandemic but will soon return to his base in the Washington area. Rickenbacker spoke to The Washington Post about his attempts to partner with communities hit hardest by pollution. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The Environmental Defense Fund has developed a mapping tool to help understand how truck pollution near warehouses and fulfillment centers affects low-income communities and people of color. How does that work?

A: Medium- and heavy-duty trucks spew nitrogen oxides, black carbon, particulate matter, smog — you name it — which has had a clear impact on upper-respiratory health, things like asthma, lung cancer and even hypertension in some of the work we’ve done out in West Oakland. We use our GIS-based tool to calculate the population that lives within a half-mile radius of the predefined distribution centers and warehouses. It calculates the demographic and socioeconomic variables around those facilities. You can pinpoint X percentage of people of color that live near this facility and X amount of people with health issues who live near these facilities. Then you can prioritize things like green infrastructure, electric vehicles, workforce development, renewable energy. We’re using health- and equity-based tools to identify where the distribution of those infrastructure benefits should take place first.

Q: What has the Environmental Defense Fund found in Oakland through its air monitoring work?

A: Hyperlocal air pollution monitoring can occur every 30 to 60 meters, and every minute, every second, down to the hour or daily averages. Why is this significant? Well, conventional air pollution monitoring networks are spaced miles apart or away from cities. We’ve had a partnership with Google Earth Outreach for many years, where we’re installing monitors on vehicles and getting a much more complete picture of air pollution at that neighborhood level.

In West Oakland, the data really highlighted impact zones where residents lived among elevated levels of pollution. The highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in that community created a 40 percent greater risk of cardiovascular disease events among those who were 65 years of age or older.

Q: How has your training as an engineer changed your view of environmental problems and solutions?

A: I’m formally trained as an environmental engineer, but I also worked part-time at a community-based environmental justice organization in the Pittsburgh region. One thing that a lot of folks may say about engineers is, you have the technical background, but you lack the soft skills. That science translation piece is important. My experience as an engineer allowed me to understand the air pollution monitoring software, the equipment, the impacts on health. But being on the ground, doing organizing, working in communities, doing trainings around air pollution monitoring to increase environmental consciousness, has allowed me to be an advocate.

Q: Big trucks drive a lot and they pollute a lot, as they move so much of the economy. Yet electric trucks, which have no emissions, are still comparatively costly. How can that problem be tackled?

A: We have to lean on large corporations to move the needle. There are tons of different incentive programs out there, where there are opportunities to purchase commercial EVs and deploy them in communities. But that’s often not enough. For some of our corporate giants, if you have the bandwidth, you have the resources, you can really drive the demand and drive the market. If there’s a clear need for electric trucks, manufacturers will understand that and then you essentially have this revolving market where prices go down.

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Q: Unlike with power plants and other big polluters causing climate change, transportation emissions stem from huge numbers of individuals making individual decisions. How do you address such a sprawling problem?

A: Part of it is really this idea of coalition-building. You have groups like EV100 that has dozens of corporations that have carbon-neutrality goals for 2030, or transportation-emission reduction goals. It’s not really an individual discussion or decision. It has to be more of a collective. You also have the Justice40 initiative, where President Biden and Vice President Harris are saying 40 percent of environmental benefits should be advanced in underprivileged communities. That means investments in climate, clean energy, clean transportation, you name it. Low-income communities that have been subjected to racial segregation — those same communities that have the health burdens — should see clean transportation and other environmental benefits in their communities first.

Q: But it’s still this vast swath of society that’s making decisions about what kind of cars to buy and how much to drive them — and creating those emissions.

A: Under the infrastructure funding and reconciliation packages, there are going to be tons of opportunities to beef up infrastructure, including public transit. Most of the communities that are impacted by transportation emissions are the same communities that are using public transit. More affluent communities can also understand you can lower your carbon footprint by riding a bus and not driving your vehicle. So at that point, it does turn into more of an individual decision. Hopefully that’s more of an open-ended discussion as some of the funding rolls in and public transit is more accessible to all.

Q: You’ve been working on zero-emission vehicle pilot projects. What do those look like?

A: We’ve entered a partnership with Fluid Truck. It’s like a ride-share platform for all things trucks, including commercial EVs. We’re also working with Ikea. They’ve taken a stance to say that all of their home deliveries will be carbon-neutral or zero emissions by 2025. In New York and New Jersey, Ikea is partnering with Fluid Truck and has access to close to 40 commercial EV trucks to deliver home goods. In the future, maybe there’s one truck that has Ikea home deliveries, along with others from Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

The goal is to prioritize those electric truck deployments where there’s a clear environmental and health benefit. We’re still in the early stages, but eventually the idea could be to calculate the health and socioeconomic status of residents who live within a half-mile of certain distribution facilities. Maybe 50 percent of people in one neighborhood have asthma. You could prioritize where to deploy the EVs so no particulate matter spews into those neighborhoods.